The bizarre story of how I came to be accused of “invading” an overseas territory’s airspace

  • 26 November, 2011
  • Politics

I have never been a grey man nor lived a dull life and, as a result, I have become embroiled in various controversies over the years.

However, until recently, I have never been accused of “invading” an overseas territory’s air space.

This I have discovered was the “offence” levelled against me nearly a decade ago in a claim that I have only just become aware of, courtesy of a friend drawing my attention to a set of stamps issued by the remote Pitcairn Islands.

For those in need of a quick geography lesson, the Pitcairn Islands – a British Overseas Territory – form a group of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific. The total land area of the islands is a mere 18 square miles and only one of the islands, Pitcairn itself (which measures around two miles across), is inhabited. Its population peaked in 1936 at 250 but it is now down to some 48 inhabitants – making it the least populated “jurisdiction” in the world.

Pitcairn does not have an airport nor any form of landing strip and therefore any aircraft – other than a distant, high-flying commercial jet – that flies overhead causes considerable excitement among the island’s residents.

So much so, in fact, that after I flew in a private plane over the islands back in August 2002, the “event” – if that is not too grand a word – led to the aircraft’s inclusion in a set of four stamps entitled “Aircraft over Pitcairn”.

An image of one of my company’s aircraft – a Dassault Falcon 900 EX – flying over the islands is on a $1.80 stamp. In the authorities’ write-up about the stamp, I am singled out by name because of my link to the aircraft and I am correctly described as a former Treasurer of the British Conservative Party.

The write-up details how the Pitcairn Commissioner received a communication from a concerned islander after the plane had been spotted over Pitcairn. The communication read: “This is to inform you that our airspace has just been invaded by VP-BMS Falcon 900 which departed Tahiti Airport at 17h 19UTC [Universal Time Coordinated] and flew over and around Pitcairn several times at around 2000 UTC. A fax informing us of the flyover was here at Satcom when I came in a few minutes ago, after the event. Betty.”

Well, nine years on, I still remember the incident clearly – and the island’s four dozen or so inhabitants will no doubt be relieved to learn that there was nothing sinister about my fleeting visit.

I flew over the island simply out of curiosity: I love travelling and I am always keen to see new places and to meet new people. I have visited well over 100 countries and, although I, sadly, could not set foot on Pitcairn that day because of its lack of airport, I was interested to see what the island looked like from the air.

I had always been interested in the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, a real-life mutiny in April 1789 on a Royal Navy ship that inspired films, books and popular songs. HMS Bounty was burned off the Pitcairn Islands and some of the descendants of the mutineers who settled on Pitcairn still live on the island.

Finding myself on holiday in Tahiti in the summer of 2002, I decided to take a look at Pitcairn from the air. I spent some 15 minutes flying around at low level, blissfully unaware of the frisson of excitement that I was creating on the ground.

I actually intend to return to the Pitcairn Islands next year as part of my quest to visit as many of our overseas territories as possible. Indeed, one that I visited earlier this year was Diego Garcia (part of a British Indian Ocean Territory).

Meanwhile I hope my forthcoming second visit to Pitcairn, by sea, will cause less of a stir among islanders than my first visit, by air, a decade earlier. Perhaps I may even meet the “Betty” who wrote that communication.

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